Shared information bias is the tendency of groups to spend time and energy discussing information that most group members already know. Consequently they have less time and energy to devote to information that only a few members know. [Stasser 1985] [Van Swol 2007] [Forsyth 2010] This bias in the way the group invests its resources leads to misalignment between reality and the group's perceptions, and eventually to bad decisions.
For example, in discussing possible solutions to a technical problem, the portion of the discussion devoted to information that most group members already know will tend to be disproportionately large, in terms of importance, compared to the portion of the discussion regarding technical subtleties known only to the few group members with relevant expertise. In part, this happens because the number of people who are familiar with the commonly shared information is greater than the number of people who are familiar with the less commonly shared information. But research suggests that the shared information bias is greater than mere numbers would predict.
Although bad decisions are the most commonly cited effect of shared information bias, the damage it causes transcends the substance of the immediate decision at hand. That's why it's important to consider other effects of the bias, to motivate groups to address shared information bias with the attention it deserves.
Here, in Part I of this exploration, are four ways shared information bias harms group processes.
- Members experience a false sense of comfort and well being
- Repeated Shared information bias leads to
misalignment between reality and
the group's perceptions, and
eventually to bad decisionsexperiences of discussions that fail to challenge group members' beliefs and preconceptions can enhance their sense of comfort and well being, however false it might be. This misapprehension of the group's actual state can expose it to great risk of chaos if it encounters a situation to which it has been rendered vulnerable by this false sense of security.
- Enhanced likelihood of groupthink
- Groupthink is a group-psychological dynamic that causes the group to converge on an outcome not on the basis of the tenets to which the group claims it subscribes, but instead as a means of achieving group harmony and conformity. The probability of an irrational and dysfunctional outcome is thus elevated. When groupthink is in effect, the group tries to minimize conflict and reach consensus, even at the cost of abandoning critical thinking, suppressing alternative viewpoints, and preventing access to external influence. Shared information bias thus facilitates groupthink by providing a false sense of comfort and well being and a variety of contributions that are consistent with the views and preconceptions of group members. For more about groupthink, see "Design Errors and Groupthink," Point Lookout for April 16, 2014.
- Biased assessments of importance
- In groups, especially in real or virtual meetings, a commonly used heuristic for assessing the importance of an idea or insight is group members' sense of the number of times it arises in discussion. People don't actually count occurrences; a subjective sense seems to be sufficient. If the group is experiencing a shared information bias, that bias skews the subjective sense of the frequency of mentions of ideas. The group members then tend to assess the importance of frequently cited ideas as greater than they might actually be. And that can skew the discussion away from directions that might reveal insights and perspective far more important than anything discussed so far.
- Increased persistence of wrong beliefs
- If someone withholds an incorrect opinion, misinformation, or misapprehension, that they themselves have accepted, it's less likely to be refuted by another group member who knows that the withheld contribution is incorrect, misinformed, or confused, but who doesn't know that any group members subscribe to it. And the longer the confusion remains in the mind of the holder, the longer it's available in that person's mind to discredit truthful beliefs and accurate perceptions.
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Bullet Point Madness: I
- Decision makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a
series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions.
We need something more. We actually need to think.
- Motivated Reasoning
- When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated
reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that erroneously lead to the
outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is
known to threaten our safety and security.
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: II
- Plans are well known for working out differently from what we intended. Sometimes, the unintended outcome
is due to external factors over which the planning team has little control. Two examples are priming
effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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